Penny Simkin wrote a short piece about the three R’s of labor (click for full article).
“The 3 R’s approach to childbirth preparation is a simplified approach based on observations of laboring women and how they actually cope with pain and stress in labor. Some cope well; others are overwhelmed in labor. There are three characteristics common to women who cope well:
1) they are able to relax during and/or between contractions. In early labor relaxation during contractions is a realistic and desirable goal; later in labor, however, many women cope much better if they don’t try to relax during contractions. They feel better if they move or vocalize during the contractions, or even tense parts of their bodies. It is vital, however, that they relax or be calm between contractions;
2) the use of rhythm characterizes their coping style;
3) they find and use rituals, that is, the repeated use of personally meaningful rhythmic activities with every contraction.”
Sometimes it’s useful to visualize times when you have been in pain or uncomfortable and draw upon the rhythms and rituals that you used then to cope. However, the best rituals are usually found in labor. For my own labors, the use of toning, which was basically one-note singing (loudly), really help me cope with my transition rushes. In active labor, swaying and belly dancing is what I end up using each time. Each woman will find a different ritual and rhythm to help her cope. The key is, don’t be afraid to find it, even if it’s odd. My midwife once told me a story of one of her clients who coped by talking frantically and incoherently through each of her contractions. It was certainly different than most, but it worked for her and helped her. As a doula, if a woman isn’t finding her own ritual and rhythm, sometimes I will step in and help her find one with suggestions and encouragement. If she has found one, I encourage her to use it during her contractions and protect her space to ensure that she is able to use it without interruption, or discard it if it’s no longer working (occasionally a new ritual and rhythm will be necessary at changes in the pace of labor). Whatever the case, find your ritual and go with it, no matter what!